Quilts at BAM entice viewers with intricate patterns and a riot of colors

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Tulip Applique Quilt. Photo courtesy of BAM
African American quilts are the focus of a new exhibit opening at Bellevue Arts Museum.

Over 50 quilts made throughout the American South between 1910 and the 1970s are on display in “Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley.”

The pieces, which were made by individuals as well as groups of women working together as families and communities, are personal expressions of their creators.

BAM’s exhibit pays homage to these objects of beauty and function, and celebrates their modern take on traditional quilting patterns, such as the House Top or Log Cabin, Star of Bethlehem and Pine Burr.

Most of the quilts are constructed of materials readily available to the makers, including flour sacks, old blue jeans, work clothes and fabric remnants.

Many have been well-used over the years and appear softly faded and worn.

Some have irregularities in form and stitching which only make them more interesting and compelling.

There are pieces that evoke a feeling of calm and are conducive to meditation, whereas others create tension.

Geometrical shapes abound, creating works of art that bring to mind paintings in the cubism style, as well as those from mid-century abstract artists such as Robert Rauschenberg.

It is this likeness to modern work that led collector and former Chicago Art Institute student Corrine Riley to seek out “things in the real world that displayed this quality of intense personal expression.”

Her search mined rich examples of asymmetry and symbolism, along with samples of mixed patterning. In one quilt, for example, you might find blocks of House Top along with squares of Log Cabin style construction.

Difficult patterns like the Pine Burr, where thousands of pieces of little fabric squares are folded into triangles, illustrate the time-consuming nature of the work, as well as its obsessive quality.

Each quilt has a story, but we are not privy to its tale, as all of the pieces are anonymous, with the exception of one.

And we will never know whether the quilters’ decisions — a random arrow in “Red Stars Quilt” or broken pattern in “Tulip Applique Quilt” —  were intentional.

A nice patriotic touch is Sarah Mary Taylor’s (the lone known quilter) flag quilt.

The Mississippi native’s work is in a number of museums and was used in the film, “The Color Purple.”

In “Giant Octagons with Dividing Bars Quilt,” bowling balls aligned in “lanes” might come to mind, or perhaps an oversized abacus.

A subdued wool and cotton creation in tones of beige, gray and black has a nice sensitivity to balance.

Another work with its irregular shards of fabric and Controlled Crazy pattern is off-setting and compels the eye to move around in different directions. The exhibit, with its stunning color combinations and distinctively free patterns, is an impressive display of the power of abstraction and serves as a delightful feast for the senses.

“Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley” is on view at Bellevue Arts Museum through October 7. For more information: (425) 519-0770 or

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